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Chuck Wing, Deseret News
Shawn McIllece, right, of Sandy, cools off one of thousands of runners who tackled the heat and the 181-mile race. Residents along the course offered water and snacks to runners.

The sweltering heat gave way to a surprisingly cool mountain night, and runners huddled together in Morgan City Park over plates of spaghetti, exchanging stories of their first legs in the MyoMed Ragnar Relay Wasatch Back.

Some shared their blankets or bug spray, while others offered to make communal their peanut butter and honey sandwiches as part of a race that is unlike any other.

"It's a tribal kind of thing among teams," said Chad Derum, who ran for one of FastRunningblog.com. St. George Running Center's two relay teams last weekend in the race that starts in Logan and ends 181 miles later in Park City. "All of the inside jokes, it's a good time. It's also exhausting."

George Sunderland, 53, who ran the race for the fifth-straight year with Loco Lugnuts, said the event is one he looks forward to all year.

"I just loved it to death," he said. "I always have."

A very experienced runner, but less serious than Derum, Sunderland said he and his teammates have discussed many times why the race is so enjoyable.

"The camaraderie, the bonding," he said. "The incredible scenery, the excitement of running for 24 hours, the logistics of passing off to each other and the other van, running at night and trail running at night, and on top of all of that, you get to run. I just love to run. But I think it's the whole experience, the event ... You share the pain and multiply the joy."

Whether runners wanted to try and win the race or just hoped to finish what is at times a brutal course made more difficult by sleep deprivation, the common experience was one of socializing in a way that isn't often available in one of the most solitary experiences in sports.

The athletes who made up Fastrunningblog.com. St. George Running Store's two teams all had to have run a marathon in two hours and 40 minutes or less, said Sasha Pachev, who organized the teams. Pachev created the blog in 2006 to share his training with others and listen to their input. He now has 549 registered bloggers, and while some are not as active as others, their collective expertise has allowed a number of runners to improve how they feel, as well as how they perform.

"We don't have people who have a whole lot of natural talent, but they're fast because they've done what it takes," Pachev said. "And they're willing to share that knowledge with others on the blog."

Some members of the two teams, made up of one racing team sponsored by St. George Running Center, ran the Ragnar Relay Del Sol in Arizona and won it by 42 minutes. The group fielded two full teams for the Wasatch Back. They finished second and third, losing to BYU's cross country team by just 35 minutes.

Catering to teams that are so diverse in ability can be difficult for race organizers.

"There are certain challenges because of that different spectrum of runners, but we try and educate everyone as to what's available and what they need to bring for themselves," said Tanner Bell, co-founder of the Ragnar Relay Race Series. "We provide as much support as we can, but teams need to make sure they're self-supportive, too."

This year's Wasatch Back had more community support than ever, even as the number of participants doubled to 578 teams, which is about 7,000 runners.

Residents of the towns along the race route not only offered runners water, candy and other snacks, but during the 96-degree heat, they also set up sprinklers and hoses to help the runners out. For the less competitive, stopping to eat in Morgan Park or at North Summit High was part of the charm and excitement of the event. For the more competitive squads, the thrill of competition, as well as camaraderie, were the attractions.

One person asked Pachev on his blog why so many runners had stomach issues in those races. He said, in effect, most participants worry too much about food and not enough about rest.

"People think they have to eat normal meals, and they mean American normal meals too," he wrote to one blogger. "You are guaranteed stomach problems in a race like this if you think you are going to a party rather than a death march."

Sleep and hunger issues make the mileage more challenging than it would normally be.

"Sleep deprivation is the hardest part of those relays," said Pachev, who is 35.

Pachev finds it helpful to be on the road with other runners, regardless of their reasons for being there.

"That actually makes it fun," he said of the variety of different runners. "In the middle of a hard leg ... running at 12:30 a.m. I was feeling tired, and then I see all of these runners who started earlier in the day, but they're coming fast. Even though I'm hurting I think, 'It must not be that bad.'"

Sunderland said the Loco Lugnuts, who finished in 221st place, keep track of roadkills (people passed during the race), because it is so motivating.

"When there were only 22 teams, you'd run and run and never even see anyone else," he said. "Now there is a better opportunity for roadkills."

But it's not all about besting other runners. Most everyone loves the chance to socialize as much as they enjoy competing.

"I liked having the higher numbers because there are a lot more teams to socialize with," Sunderland said. "More teams makes it more fun."

And while more teams meant more traffic in Utah's back country, which was, at times, challenging to maneuver through, everyone was patient, and most were prepared for the added number of runners. "We had some team meetings about this before the race," said Sunderland. "We had a lot of concerns going into it, but we anticipated most of the issues."

Most participants felt the only real issue was how crowded the exchange at Rockport was. But they also loved the added number of competitors and new friends, as well as the increased support from businesses and residents. "I thought they did a superb job given the number of runners," said Sunderland. "In the end, it all worked out."

Bell said that the race will now stay around the same number of participants. As of Tuesday afternoon, 190 teams had already signed up for the 2009 race.

"There is a certain amount of excitement now that we've reached (capacity)," Bell said. "Now we'll know what to anticipate. We've already gotten some great feedback, and I'm sure we'll tweak some things. Overall, it was an overwhelming success."

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